Basil Fawlty & lessons in liberty

If you’ve seen the British sitcom Fawlty Towers, then you’ll know that the hotel owner, Basil Fawlty, is not a people-person. Actually, he hates people. He hates that they don’t always do as they are told, that they make mistakes and that they complain about their room or their food. He hates that they disagree with him. He thinks humanity is idiotic and doomed.

He’s perpetually exasperated and enraged by his wife, the hotel guests and his staff. He would dearly love to beat them all half to death with a frying pan, if only that wouldn’t result in him not having an income to live on and a wife to live with. If only!

Imagine if Basil Fawlty didn’t own and run a hotel. Imagine that he didn’t live in a capitalist society where people were free to choose their own occupations. Imagine if, instead, he lived in some form of centrally planned socialist society where private property was abolished. One where there was no capitalism or exchange. No money and no prices. A society in which the government distributed all resources and assigned people their occupations according to the Marx maxim “from each according to his ability to each according to his need.”

What occupation would a borderline psychotic man like Basil Fawlty be assigned? He would surely be a state interrogator or prison guard. A large number of whom would be needed in a society where people and resources are strictly controlled. It would be clear to government officials that this man was born to be an authoritarian. It’s not hard to imagine Basil Fawlty, the state interrogator.

“Why did you take two loaves of bread! Hm? Are you special? Screams Basil. “You were explicitly told one. One! Can you count to one or is that too much for you? Hm? Basil taps his finger on the loaf of bread on the table as he stares at his prisoner and waits for an answer.

“My wife, she’s ill and…”

Basil cuts him off. “Sod your bleedin’ wife! This is a loaf of The People!” He raises his arm and brings the butt of his gun crashing down on the back of the man’s head, who slumps to the ground like a string puppet let go. There’s a knock at the door.

“Basil?” comes a shrill voice from outside the interrogation room. Basil’s head shoots up like a rabbit caught in head lights.

“Yes dear?” He shouts in a higher pitched voice.

“Did you get what I asked for?”

“Of course, dear.” An insincere smile spreads instinctively across his face. “Just had one or two minor problems getting the second loaf, but it’s absolutely all under control now.”

“It better be.”

Basil snarls and makes a throttling motion in the direction of the door. He looks around for something or some one to take out his frustrations on. Then he remembers the barely conscious man lying on the floor. With the gentle smile and head tilt of a waiter ready to take your order, he kicks him in the bollocks.

A comedic character like Basil Fawlty, played brilliantly by John Cleese, might seem incongruous within the context of a totalitarian society, but the essence of his character resonates with well-intentioned totalitarianism. Yes, he’s often confronted with stupidity, but Basil Fawlty believes that if only everyone just did what he told them to, then the world would run smoothly.

This superiority complex is part of the comedy of his character, of course, but essentially it’s the mindset of a dictator. In a free society this mindset has very little room for expression and is frowned upon. But in an unfree society where people’s behaviour is strictly controlled by Authority such a mindset is a highly valued skill and there is unlimited scope for its expression.

In order to live, everyone in a capitalist society, including deranged types like Basil Fawlty, must add value to other people’s lives – however much they may hate doing so. If there was any other way to live without having to serve his fellow-man, then Basil Fawlty would take it.

But, much to his constant chagrin, there isn’t. And so to put food in his belly, keep a roof over his head and to keep his wife from nagging him, he spends his days doing just that. He does so in a most rude and begrudging manner, but none the less he adds value to the lives of everyone who stays at his hotel. And to the people he employs.

In a free society, people like Basil Fawlty reluctantly choose to be productive members of society because the alternatives are far too costly. In a centrally planned, unfree society they may easily become willing tools of evil. In a mixed capitalist/socialist society, which has a government welfare system, they can easily choose to be economically idle and to indulge their misanthropy.

For as long as they are getting food and shelter for free, they don’t have to be nice to be people. They don’t have to serve anyone. They don’t have to be productive members of society. Imagine Basil Fawlty living on welfare; living on money taken by government force from others. He could shout and scream at people every day. He could treat people exactly the way he wants to, which he would find satisfying, but that wouldn’t be funny.

What is funny is watching a man who wishes he could rule his fellow-man having to serve him instead. Every day of every week of every year. He has to do so because in a free society he must give to live, and people are free to refrain from doing business with him. Basil Fawlty hates this because it constantly reminds him that he will never have that which he so desires: to be in control of the world and everyone in it. And that’s what makes Fawlty Towers funny.

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